Reports Jun 8, 2018 | 12:57 AMby Colin McGourty

Fabi again! 7 Conclusions from Norway Chess 2018

Fabiano Caruana is the 2018 Altibox Norway Chess Champion after winning a nerve-racking encounter with Wesley So in the final round. But for a rushed 41st move by Wesley they would have drawn and joined a 5-player blitz playoff with Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura, who drew, and Vishy Anand, who turned on the style to beat Sergey Karjakin. Instead the tournament is over. We take a look back at how it went and draw some conclusions.

Caruana explains his final win over So to Simen Agdestein and Anna Rudolf | photo: Lennart Ootes, Altibox Norway Chess

When MVL and Carlsen drew in 20 minutes and 17 moves we feared the final day might go on to be an anti-climax, but Caruana-So and Karjakin-Anand turned out to be epic encounters. You can replay the final day’s action using the selector below:

And you can replay the four hours of commentary from Peter Svidler and Jan Gustafsson, who not only found time to cover all the chess action but also broached such important topics as who would be the fastest players in the field in a 100m race…

Let’s get straight to the conclusions:

1. Fabi can’t help winning

Fabiano Caruana did everything he could not to win this year’s Altibox Norway Chess tournament. In the run-up to the event he was said to have tried to pull out, as Sergey Karjakin had done in 2016 after qualifying for the World Championship match. A few days before it began he lost to Anish Giri in the Bundesliga (Anish has annotated that game for his website):

It's worth explaining that tweet by once again posting the best trolling of 2018, courtesy of Magnus's second Peter Heine Nielsen:

Then the big one – in Round 1 he played slowly and made some strange decisions on the way to a heavy loss to his upcoming World Championship opponent – Magnus Carlsen. The champ’s thoughts were already turning to the match in London:

That wasn’t quite all – in Round 2, just when he had a chance to play for a win against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, he inexplicably blundered a pawn and was somewhat lucky not to have slipped from borderline winning to borderline lost.

Fabiano is fast becoming a magnet for chess groupies | photo: Lennart Ootes, Altibox Norway Chess

This is the late 2017, early 2018 version of Fabiano Caruana, though, and after a Ding Liren-funded double rest day he beat Karjakin to get back to 50%, and then it was time for a trademark finish:

While the first of the two wins at the end was perhaps his game of the event, against Vishy Anand, the final game had a certain element of luck about it – but Fabiano has been getting lucky too often for it not to be more about fighting spirit, nerves and sheer calculation. He won his last two games in the Berlin Candidates and the US Championship, two of his last three in the GRENKE Chess Classic, and before those the last round and then a playoff in the London Chess Classic.

The game against Wesley So was a fitting climax to the whole event, and by the final stages it was crystal clear what it meant. If Fabi won he’d be champion, if Wesley won, he’d be champion, and if they drew we’d have a 5-player blitz tournament to decide who would get the 75,000 euro top prize. Peter Svidler takes us through what he describes as “a tremendously exciting game of the day, arguably game of the tournament”:

Of course it will be remembered above all for one moment:

Wesley had been losing but seemed to have found a great escape when he sacrificed a rook on h3. He’d just made the time control and had 50 minutes to ponder what to do. The drawing line was 41…Rd2!, which Fabiano had assumed didn’t work. It did, though: 42.hxg4 hxg4 43.Qg2 Qh8+! 44.Kg1 Rxg2 45.Kxg2 Qh3+, and although White has an extra rook there’s no escaping perpetual check. It was far from trivial, but if Wesley had stopped himself after the time control he would surely have found it. Instead he played the losing 41…Rd3? after just 4 seconds – a sequence you can watch on our Spanish broadcast:

It wasn’t clear whether Wesley had simply lost count of how many moves he’d made, or if he’d completely lost faith in his position, as Caruana guessed, but it had big consequences for half of the Norway Chess field.

Vishy Anand commented:

It’s tough when you play Rd3 on move 41, so he will have a sleepless night… It’s easy to sit here and be calm and say, “you think”, but I’m sure his nerves were shot – and that’s what happens.

Caruana agreed:

He was probably still rattled – these were nerve-racking moments for both of us. It was a tough time trouble position – a very complicated position, very easy to blunder things.

The availability of a means of checking how many moves you've made is perhaps the elephant in the room in this photo... | photo: Lennart Ootes, Altibox Norway Chess

Overall Fabiano was of course happy with his result:

It’s actually my first time winning here. I’ve played several times, but never managed to even make a plus score. I did 50% twice, and -1 once. Somewhere during this game I thought I might again finish on 50%.

He compared his performance in Norway to the GRENKE Chess Classic:

My last one was a bit more convincing! I was very proud of that win, I thought I played a great tournament. I’m proud of some moments of this tournament, but it wasn’t a flawless performance…

Fabiano is getting used to being the centre of attention - he'll need those skills in London later this year | photo: Lennart Ootes, Altibox Norway Chess

He got the job done, though, and has now finished ahead of Magnus in their last two supertournaments. They might conceivably meet at the Olympiad, but it seems otherwise they have no scheduled joint tournaments before the match.

2. Magnus should stick to slow starts

Magnus is a notoriously slow starter, but it hasn’t stopped him winning almost everything it’s possible to win in chess. This time, though, he came flying out of the blocks. Beating his future challenger was a perfect start, while his game against Levon Aronian in Round 3 was a minor masterpiece against the defending champion and a man who had beaten him in Stavanger in 2017. Magnus crossed 2850 on the live rating list, had almost a 40-point lead over Caruana, was still unbeaten for the year and had a full-point lead over the field. It seemed all he needed to do was cruise to the finish line.

The final round game wasn't the toughest Maxime or Magnus have ever played | photo: Lennart Ootes, Altibox Norway Chess

From there on out, though, Magnus didn’t win a game and, one of the drawbacks of being no. 1, he shed rating points in each round.

There was no disguising the big turning point – the clash with Wesley So. Carlsen summed up his event:

Mediocre, I would say. Great start, and then my tournament kind of died, but I guess it all boils down to the game with Wesley. If I don’t lose that then I’m cruising, but with that loss I couldn’t really recover. I felt that yesterday (vs. Mamedyarov) I had a decent chance, but couldn’t make anything of it, and that was it.

Magnus admitted he’d simply misevaluated the position against So and been well beaten. You might, of course, question the approach to the final game. The World Champion had the black pieces against his World Championship second and a player he hadn’t beaten with Black since 2005, but should he still have pushed for more, trying to assert his dominance...

Strong start to the tournament

A post shared by Magnus Carlsen (@magnus_carlsen) on

…instead of relying on the probabilities of none of his co-leaders winning so he’d get a chance in a blitz playoff? He explained his approach:

I was very unsure of what to do so I basically just decided in the car on the way here to play my normal stuff and see what happens. I decided not to rock the boat, finally, and just play solidly and see what happens, and as you can see, nothing happened.

In the end, although his advantage at the top of the live rating list was cut to 24 points, the tournament was hardly a disaster. It was one of those Magnus “bad results”, when he only finishes second…

3. Team USA is looking good

Going into the final round all three of the US stars were among the co-leaders, and while in the end it was Fabiano who took the glory the others could look back on a successful tournament. The last-round loss for Wesley was painful, but it’s unlikely he would have wanted to trade finally beating Magnus for a share of first place. For Hikaru Nakamura, meanwhile, it was another successful Norway Chess – he’s now finished “on the podium” in all four of his appearances in Stavanger.

Photographers out in force for the final round | photo: Lennart Ootes, Altibox Norway Chess

So the US team are looking strong in an Olympiad year, but of course they also have another ace up their sleeve. US Champion Sam Shankland is showing no signs of slowing down just yet, and is performing above his shiny new 2717 rating in the American Continental Championship in Uruguay. If you want to play through a fun game check out this one against Diego Flores.  

4. If you fall off your bike, fall on your teeth

This was a tip helpfully shared in the chess24 chat during the last round, since it seems you can keep playing with dental issues... Shakhriyar Mamedyarov’s “will he play or won’t he” story had dominated the non-chess interest at the start of the event. The Azeri no. 1 couldn’t sleep because of toothache and spent hours a day in the dentist’s chair, but in the end he managed to complete the event with a respectable -1 – drawing Magnus in his last round to remain world no. 3 and in the 2800 club.

Shakhriyar had recovered enough to do Titanic impressions, while Ding Liren after surgery was feeling brave enough to abandon terra firma | photo: Lennart Ootes, Altibox Norway Chess

The world no. 4, Ding Liren, wouldn’t be so lucky, and it turned out a heavy fall while cycling with his father on the rest day had fractured his hip. He joined Vishy Anand to win the cooking competition, but spent the evening in hospital, with surgery scheduled for the following day. The talk was of his Round 4 game merely being postponed to the next rest day, but armchair doctors everywhere soon googled that a hip fracture is no laughing matter. Finishing the event was unlikely, and so it proved, as the Chinese no. 1 pulled out and has also cancelled his planned match in Prague against David Navara (Harikrishna will play instead) while he focuses on recovery.

The good news for Ding is that his three draws mean he now has a 75-game unbeaten classical streak, but it was a shame we didn’t get to see if he could maintain that – or get the one or two wins that would have made him the first Chinese 2800 player. We’ll now have to wait until later this year to see if he can continue his rise.

5. Vishy is a fox

Vishy Anand could have been forgiven for getting downhearted after his fine win over Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was immediately cancelled out by a loss to Caruana, but instead he bounced back to win again, this time against Sergey Karjakin. The first 18 moves were blitzed out, and it looked as though we’d get a peaceful outcome after both players demonstrated how much they work on chess. Instead it seems possible 18.Qh4!? was an accidental improvisation by Sergey, who then found himself thinking for a mammoth 49 minutes on the following move.

Vishy outfoxed Sergey | photo: Lennart Ootes, Altibox Norway Chess

It looked complicated enough to justify that, more or less, but after so many difficult moves 26.h4? was a blunder:

26…Ne5! was the kind of move that caused Aronian to exclaim, “You always have to assume Vishy has something up his sleeve - he's such a fox!” Suddenly the threat is to win the white queen with Ng4, while the c4-pawn is also hanging. The pawn soon fell with check, queens were exchanged, and Karjakin was simply a pawn down for no compensation when he blundered another:

32…Nf6! and Sergey had seen enough and resigned. Not Harry the h-pawn’s finest hour.

Once again Vishy had shown that being over a decade older than anyone else in the event wasn’t an obstacle to playing sharp, fresh chess. He may also have got some inspiration from elsewhere – Boris Gelfand turns 50 in a couple of weeks, and is back in the 2700 club after a fine performance in Poikovsky. He also showed the ability to come back after a tough game:

6. Fabi deprived us of a lot of fun

The rise and rise of Fabiano Caruana has been a great story and he provided an exciting final day, but we should probably hold a moment’s silence for the 5-player blitz tournament his win deprived us of. In 2012 Dmitry Andreikin won a 6-player (!) playoff for the Russian Championship, but it’s hard to think of many similar examples, and it would have been great to have Peter Svidler commentating for one final day. Damn you, Fabi 😊

 7. MVL and Karjakin’s thoughts will be turning to Leuven

Without Magnus there won't be a clear favourite for the rapid and blitz tournaments coming up, but Maxime will be one of the strong contenders | photo: Lennart Ootes, Altibox Norway Chess

Sergey Karjakin and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave had events to forget in a hurry. Maxime admitted in the final round he was trying, “not to add any more injuries”. Sergey didn’t manage that, and finished with three losses in his last four games to end at the bottom of the table. At least it’s something for lovers of symmetry, since he’s now twice finished first and twice last in Norway Chess!

There’s not too long to dwell on that, though, since all but two of the players – Carlsen and Ding Liren – are now heading to Leuven for the first stage of the 2018 Grand Chess Tour. They’ll be joined by Alexander Grischuk and wildcard Anish Giri for 9 rounds of rapid chess and 18 rounds of blitz, starting on Tuesday 12 June. You’ll of course be able to follow all the action live here on chess24!

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